'God told us to exorcise her demons.' The real story behind Netflix's The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

If you’re in self-isolation right now and you’re looking for some (albeit slightly disturbing) escapism, please know that The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a very solid 2005 horror movie, has just dropped on Netflix

The tale of Anneliese Michel, played by Jennifer Carpenter, a German woman who becomes ‘possessed’ and endures multiple exorcisms before her ultimate death in 1976, might seem completely fantastical – but actually, the movie is based on a tragic true story.

The real Anneliese Michel grew up in a devoutly Catholic family in Bavaria, West Germany, with her three sisters, and parents Josef and Anna. The Church was a significant part of their lives, and they attended Mass twice a week.

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The first signs of trouble with Anneliese appeared when she was 16. She blacked out at school and began walking in a trance, but later had no recollection of the episode. A year later, a similar incident happened. After seeing a neurologist, she was diagnosed with temporal lobe epilepsy, a disorder that causes seizures, loss of memory, and visual and auditory hallucinations.

Upon receiving treatment for her condition, Anneliese enrolled in the University of Würzburg in 1973. However, it soon became apparent that her medication was not enough, because she began to tell people that she was possessed by a demon.

Anneliese reported that she saw the face of the devil constantly, and heard demons telling her she was “damned” and would “rot in hell”. She thus concluded that she needed help from the Church.

At that time, she was advised she needed medical assistance, but it was almost too late; Anneliese’s schizophrenia had enveloped her. She would tear her clothes from her body, squat 400 times daily, bark like a dog, eat insects, and drink her own urine.


After much searching, the family found priest Ernst Alt, who convinced local bishop, Bishop Josef Stangl, to approve another priest, Arnold Renz, to perform an exorcism. The one condition: it must be performed in absolute secrecy.

Over the next 10 months, Alt and Renz conducted 67 exorcisms, lasting up to four hours, on Anneliese’s fragile body and mind. She would often need to be restrained to endure the sessions.

During that time, she revealed that she believed she was possessed by five demons: Lucifer, Cain, Judas Iscariot, Adolf Hitler, and Nero. She also broke the bones and ripped the tendons in her knees from continually kneeling in prayer in an effort to exorcise the demons in her mind.

By this stage, her parents had stopped all medical consultations to treat their daughter. Anneliese began starving herself, and finally, stopped eating. She eventually died of malnutrition and dehydration on July 1, 1976.

She was 23 years old.

It was found that her death could have been prevented even one week before, which is why her parents, and priests Ernst Alt and Arnold Renz were charged in relation to it.

At the trial, the defence played audio recordings of what they claimed were demons speaking during the exorcisms, but they were not enough to convince the court. The priests were found guilty of negligent manslaughter and were sentenced to a suspended six months in jail.

Anneliese’s parents were exempted from punishment under German sentencing law, which stipulated their suffering from losing their daughter was enough.

It is that legal aspect of Anneliese’s story which The Exorcism of Emily Rose focuses on, asking the viewer to make up their own mind, using flashbacks, about whether the adults involved acted from love or ignorance.

It is clear, however, what the German public thought. They were so deeply disturbed by Anneliese’s case that to this day, her gravesite remains a place of pilgrimage.

In a 2005 interview with the Guardian, Annaeliese’s mother said she did not regret her daughter’s death.

“She was bearing stigmata and that was a sign from God that we should exorcise the demons. She died to save other lost souls, to atone for their sins,” she said.

Feature Image: Youtube.